‘The Nile and Ancient Egypt’ at the Freer Gallery of Art showcases ancient Egyptians’ reverence for the river

December 19, 2013

The new “The Nile and Ancient Egypt” show at the Freer Gallery poses an obvious question: What’s an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts doing at one of the two Smithsonian museums of Asian art?

“Most of these objects were collected by Charles Lang Freer himself,” says curator Alexander Nagel, so it makes sense to display them in his eponymous museum. And Freer felt his mission — to help scholars draw connections between great civilizations throughout human history — would be unfulfilled without specimens from Egypt.

A self-made millionaire, Freer retired at age 46 and spent the rest of his life gathering art. Most of it originated in Asia, but he also made three trips to Egypt between 1906 and 1909. He died in 1919, and his collection became the Freer Gallery, which opened in 1923.

While traveling through Egypt by train, sailboat and donkey, Freer brought back about 1,500 objects, most of which are no bigger than a nickel. Nagel plucked around

20 pieces (plus some larger items) from these multitudes, including jewel-like glass vessels, mosaic tiles and animal-shaped amulets.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the amulets, which came in the shape of crocodiles, hippos and other river creatures, provided the wearer protection and blessings, perhaps because of their close relationship to the Nile’s life-giving waters, Nagel says.

Small cosmetics bottles decorated with wave-like patterns also reflect ancient Egyptians’ deep reverence for the Nile, Nagel says. The curator and his colleagues recently X-rayed these vessels to find clues about ancient glassmaking methods. The shape of the bottles’ interior walls suggests that Egyptian craftsmen used a sandy-clay core to mold the glass, and then dug out the clay once the glass was cool.

Freer also bought tiny glass tiles featuring detailed images of faces or masks. Artisans mass-produced the objects by fusing together long glass rods and then cutting tiles off the end like slice-and-bake cookies, Nagel says.

Though beautiful, these tiles are fairly common. “Every museum has a few,” he says. That’s perhaps because Freer — a discerning collector of Asian art — was not very schooled in Egyptian antiquities. His purchases include hundreds of underwhelming artifacts (shards of pottery, seed-sized glass beads) and even a few which are clearly fakes.

His occasional credulity can be chalked up to his sheer awe of Egypt. In 1907, Freer told a friend that his hoard would be incomplete without examples of “the greatest art in the world.”


‘Two-handled jar’
circa 1539-1295 B.C.
The desert sand perfectly preserved this 3,000-year-old glass jar, which was probably used to store cosmetics or scented oil. The pattern may represent the all-important Nile.

‘Frog bead’
circa 1539-1187 B.C.
This dime-sized glass frog represents the fertility goddess known as Heket. Ancient Egyptian midwives and other women may have worn such trinkets for good luck during childbirth.

‘Cane for mosaic plaques’
circa 100 B.C.-100 A.D.
Egyptian craftsmen fused glass rods together into thick canes, above, and sliced tiles off the ends, below. The tiles were likely used as theater tickets or furniture inlays.

‘Taweret amulet’
circa 305-30 B.C.
This clay amulet depicts the fertility goddess Taweret, a hippopotamus with lion paws and a crocodile tail. She provided protection during pregnancy and childbirth.

Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW; free; 202-633-4880. (Smithsonian)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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